On a June afternoon, Renee Sumby was parking her car outside her Anacostia condo after work when she noticed some kids vandalizing an abandoned cara situation she’s grown accustomed to seeing on her block of Douglass Place SE. The boysaround 10 years old, she guessescasually dispersed as Sumby got out and walked into her building. But by the time she walked back outside a few minutes later, the car was on fire.
“The flames were really going up,” remembers Sumby. “It was just wild.” She says the fire department snuffed out the car within minutes.
Sumby and other residents of the new Overlook Condominiums have grown used to the flaming-car phenomenonsometimes referred to as a “car-be-cue” in police vernacular. Jackie Ward, a resident leading a neighborhood task force to remove abandoned vehicles from the block, estimates that about a half-dozen stolen or abandoned cars have been torched in front of her home this year.
Before the renovated condominiums opened up last year, the property had sat vacant for a dozen years. Ward imagines that car dumpers continued to assume that the buildings were unoccupied.
Ward says she saw her first burning car about two weeks after moving in last November, while she was taking a stroll to get her bearings. Having to pass the blackened carcass each day, Ward pestered the police at the 7th District station house until they finally sent someone to remove the car. A few months later, in the winter, the newly settled residents witnessed a second car bonfire. “The police said they couldn’t do anything. It just sat there,” says Ward. She hassled the mayor’s office until it was moved.
But the cars kept coming, and one in every bunch seemed to get torched. “When I lived in Northwest, it wasn’t a problem. There are so many cars up there, where are you gonna leave an abandoned car?” asks Sumby. “I think they dump them in Southeast because they know no one will come down here looking for them.”
Not long after the June fire witnessed by Sumby, a car was set ablaze behind the old Frederick Douglass Junior High School, which now houses a charter school across the street from the condos. The burned-out car sat behind the school, until someoneresidents can’t imagine whobrought it around to the front of the school and parked it on Douglass Place across from the Overlook buildings.
The fires typically occur during the day. “I don’t think they want to do it at night,” says Sumby. “It would draw too much attention.” The cars usually sit curbside for weeks or monthsor yearsbefore being torched. They gradually lose their hubcaps, lights, and batteries. They rarely still have tags by the time they are set on fire.
But the latest victim, on Aug. 26, was a sedan that still had its Maryland plates and remained untorched for only a few hours. It had been reported stolen earlier in the day, but by the time Ward came home that evening, it had been burned. The following day, she saw children playing on the charred shell.
Ward has coaxed the Department of Public Works (DPW) into doing four sweeps of abandoned cars in the neighborhood. The agency has done two already, bringing out a fleet of tow trucks to remove cars, some of which had been there for as long as three years, according to Ward. She says the local police service unit has become shockingly responsive.
The problem, she says, is that the city has no room to store the collections of stolen and abandoned autos moving into the block. The condo tenantsabout 90 percent of whom are womenhave learned not to celebrate after a DPW sweep. After the first cleanup, Ward says, seven more unclaimed cars moved in almost immediately. After the second sweep, yet another seven.
“That first night we were patting ourselves on the back and high-fiving each other,” laughs Ward. “Then one of the cops came in. He waited until we were done high-fiving. Then he said, ‘I just came through your neighborhood. I hate to tell you, but there are some more [dumped] cars in there already.’” CP